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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Does this word count make my book look big?

By Michael Ehret

(This post first appeared in 2012. It has been edited for wordiness. But even more could be slashed, I suspect.)

 Your manuscript is big-boned. Over the years, it has picked up a few extra words here and there. But that shouldn’t be a problem. Publishers should just accept your manuscript as it is, right? All of those skinny manuscripts are airbrushed anyway. No more manuscript-shaming!

Time to get serious, for the health of your book and your career.

Your book is likely overweight and if it doesn’t lower its word count it won’t be able to compete. Sign up for Word Watchers and get trim. Because, like Weight Watchers, Word Watchers works!

Word Watchers has developed four key principles that can help you self-edit that extra verbiage. These are borrowed from Weight Watchers directly, but adapted for writers.

Principle 1: Healthy word loss

Q. What’s healthy when it comes to word loss?

A. As trim as possible without sacrificing artistry or voice.

I think of it this way: If a word can be deleted, it gets deleted. Scour your writing for:
  • Redundancies:
    1. “Josh estimated that they’d arrive in Minneapolis by roughly 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon.” (14 words)
    2. “Josh estimated they’d arrive in Minneapolis by 4:00 p.m.” (9 words)
  • Wordiness:
    1. “Sarah knew that at her place of employment Jason was knee-deep in advance planning for the next year’s fundraising campaign.” (20 words)
    2. “Sarah knew her co-worker Jason was knee-deep in planning next year’s fundraiser.” (12 words)

Principle 2: Fits into your life

Any Word Watchers approach must be realistic, practical, and livable. You are not likely to become Ernest Hemingway straight out of the gate. But set goals that will help. Here are two simple tricks:
  • That/Very: In almost every case, these words can be eliminated.
  • Adverbs: Scorn them. “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” — Mark Twain For more on this.

Principle 3: Informed choices

At Word Watchers, writers learn not only what to do, but why. If you know why, you gain the confidence to make the right choices for your writing. Here are two websites I often visit for input:
  1. Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips
  2. Purdue University Online Writing Lab
I highly recommend American Christian Fiction Writers as a place to get grounded not only in the craft of writing, but in the career of writing as well.

Principle 4: Take a holistic view

Finally, the Word Watchers approach must be comprehensive. One of the best ways to practice tight writing is in a writer’s critique group that will, kindly and in love, kick your writing butt until you’re in shape. They’ll remind you of what you’ve learned (and of how often you’ve had to learn it). They will hold you down and sit on you until you’ve eliminated every extra word—and will expect you to do the same to them. With chocolate. 


What's your favorite trick for trimming a bloated manuscript?


Michael Ehret has accepted God's invitation and is a freelance editor at In addition, he's worked as editor-in-chief of the ACFW Journal at American Christian Fiction Writers. He pays the bills as a marketing communications writer and sharpened his writing and editing skills as a reporter for The Indianapolis News and The Indianapolis Star.


  1. Great tips, Mike! I cut 40K words out of my first manuscript. That made it much better, but it will continue to live under my bed. However, that taught me to write tight. I finish my first draft at approximately 75K words, and then flesh it out by adding more of the senses, etc until I hit around 85 to 90K. I'd much rather do it that way.

  2. Rachel D. Laird9:47 AM, May 03, 2016

    Hello, Mike. I enjoyed your article. By reading my article or story out loud, I can "hear" redundant and tongue-twisted words. Please write more articles like this one - I'm always looking to improve.

  3. You mention cutting "that". My pet peeve word for years and the most overused/unecessary word in English. But I confess I'm a little obsessive about it. Can't even read my Bible without thinking, "They don't need the "that" ... don't think it was in the Greek. What's wrong with these translators?"

  4. Jim, I'm right with you on "that"!!! lol

  5. Rachel, Glad you liked it. Reading out loud is an excellent tip!

    Jim, That that is still a problem is indicative of the problem that we have with eliminating that. That is, it's such a part of our existence that taking that out becomes that much more difficult. And congrats on the Christy nom, my friend! Loved that book.

    Ane, I'm amused at your process. I tend to write longer and edit down. :)

  6. Prepositional phrases are prime targets for authors looking to trim bloated paragraphs. Sure, sometimes you simply have to state that a person or thing was on, off, at, inside, outside, over, under, before, after, etc. But so often prepositional phrases are simply the lazy leftovers of the way we talk. Deleting them whenever possible creates leaner, more interesting pages.

  7. Rick, another good precept. Thanks!


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